MaltaToday | 9 March 2008 | The past as future

NEWS | Sunday, 09 March 2008

The past as future

In his analysis JAMES DEBONO compares the 2008 election with previous elections, to find out some striking parallels and notable differences.

Winning after losing twice
Like former Labour leader Dom Mintoff in 1958, Sant was unable to complete his first term in office. While Sant’s downfall was brought about by a twist of fate with Mintoff’s hard-line stance against a marina in Cottonera, Mintoff resigned from office in protest against British plans to downsize the dockyard – just three years after being elected and two years after the integration referendum.
While Sant’s downfall brought about a Fenech Adami comeback in 1998 and paved the way to EU membership, Mintoff’s downfall paved the way for a Borg Olivier government in 1962 and Independence from Britain in 1964.
Like Mintoff in 1962 and 1966, Sant was to lose two consecutive elections in 1998 and 2003. While the 1962 and 1966 elections were dominated by the big issues of the day – state-church relations and independence – the 1998 and 2003 elections were dominated by the bigger issue of whether to join the European Union or not.
The Good Friday agreement signed between Dom Mintoff and Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi in 1969 had put an end to one of the darkest chapters in Maltese history – the interdett. Yet on the eve of the 1971 election the PN still tried to remind voters of the MLP’s anticlericalism by distributing leaflets on church parvis.
This time round, by approving the aborted EU constitution and the Lisbon Treaty, the MLP has managed to exorcise the party’s eurosceptic past, but the PN have made a field day of Alfred Sant’s pledge to renegotiate with the EU on subsidies for the dockyards.
As in 2008 the major question facing the electorate in 1971 was presented as a choice between change and stability. One notable difference between 1971 and 2008 is that the Nationalist Party is led by a relatively new and dynamic leader who was only appointed Prime Minister in 2004. Back in 1971 the PN was led by George Borg Olivier – who was already perceived as a spent force after leading his party since 1950.
And as in 1987, 1971 proved to be the end of a Nationalist and a Labour cycle. If Labour has its way in 2008, it would put an end to a cycle which started in 1987.

Coalitions and third parties
The coalition theme was AD’s trump card in this election in its effort to break the mould of the two-party system which dominated parliament since 1966.
Ironically by introducing a proportional electoral system in which electors could offer their preferences to candidates of different parties, the British colonial authorities sought to foster small parties as an antidote to a strong, united nationalist movement.
Still, in the post-war scenario, this electoral system defied the designs of its proponents and served to foster a two-party system. Yet before WWII, coalitions were the order of the day with the “small” Labour Party holding the proverbial key to government, first by prodding a clerical government and than by teaming up with Gerald Strickland’s Constitutionals.
Malta’s first and last pre-declared coalition agreement dates back to 1926 when the Labour Party signed a compact with Gerald Strickland’s Constitutional Party.
In 1927 the two parties signed an agreement through which they called on their respective supporters first to vote for the candidates of their party and then to continue voting for the candidates of the allied party.
The two parties were united by a more secular outlook than their conservative rivals and a vision of modernisation within the British empire. Upon winning the election the two parties formed a coalition.
The only other episode of coalition making took place between 1950 and 1955 after the Mintoff-Boffa split resulted in two rival Labour parties.
Boffa’s moderate and pro-British Malta Workers Party formed two coalitions with the Nationalist Party in 1951 and 1953 in which Boffa assumed the portfolio of Minister for Health while George Borg Olivier was Prime Minister. But in so doing it lost ground to Mintoff’s militant Labour Party, disappearing completely from the political scene by the 1955 election.
Third parties only returned to the scene in the 1962 when Mabel Strickland’s Progressive Constitutional Party, Toni Pellegrini’s Christian Workers Party and Herbert Ganado’s Democratic Nationalist Party gained representation in parliament.
Yet despite their ephemeral success the Nationalists were still able to gain an absolute majority in parliament after one of Ganado’s deputies defected to them, thus depriving third parties of the key to power.
Ever since 1962 third parties failed to get any representatives in parliament. The Constitutional Party failed miserably in its last attempt gaining a sheer 1% of the vote – a result which was only surpassed by AD in 1992 when the nascent Green Party gained 1.7%, its best ever result in a general election.
Yet the supremacy of two-party rule did not prevent one single MP, Duminku Mintoff from bringing down his own party’s government in 1998.
In 2003, Alternattiva Demokratika took part in talks with the Nationalist Party in a bid to create a pro-EU membership alliance. But the talks got nowhere with the PN insisting on AD not to contest the election in return for the presidency of the House of Parliament after the election.

Corruption and mudslinging
Back in the late 1920s an inconsequential waiter and drunkard by the name of Terrinu Bono was used by the PN to invent the story that Lord Gerald Strickland had been seen wearing the garb of a Freemason. It was one way of trying to shaft Strickland.
In the 1971 campaign, corruption became a major issue in the campaign. Combating deeply rooted corruption was one of the MLP’s electoral trump cards in 1971. The MLP denounced corruption as a disease pervading Maltese society. In its manifesto the MLP stated that “disorganisation and corruption abounded in Government departments”, and that “discipline in the country has vanished” to the extent that those “who could grab anything, grabbed it...”.
One striking parallel, recently evoked by former PN President Dr Frank Portelli, between the current political climate and that preceding the watershed 1971 election which swept Labour to power, were allegations of corruption surrounding the opening of a new hospital. The Gozo hospital was one of the pet projects of the Borg Olivier administration. In the PN’s 1966 electoral programme the Nationalist Party declared that the building of a new and modern hospital had already been approved and work would start in a short time. Some time before the election in 1966, the Nationalist government asked for the help of the British government for this project.
It is alleged that in his effort to lobby the Maltese government, British architect John Poulson deposited GBP5,000 in the bank account of a Maltese businessman who served as his agent in Malta. Poulson instructed his agent Abela to donate this sum of money to the PN’s Press Fund. At that time the PN had set up a Press Fund with the aim of building a printing press and its headquarters in Pietà. The Press Fund was directed by Minister Carmelo Caruana. According to the book Web of Corruption, the Maltese interlocutor promised even more money on Poulson’s behalf than the original GBP5,000. He promised Carmelo Caruana the grand sum of GBP30,000 if the contract was awarded to Poulson.
Mintoff’s greatest shortcoming when elected to power was his failure to enact the checks and balances on state power proposed in the party’s 1971 electoral manifesto.
The party’s pledge to introduce an Ombudsman was forgotten and the promise to give citizens the right of petition the European Court of Human Rights was only implemented on the eve of the 1987 election. Instead of strengthening accountability and the rule of law as promised in 1971, Mintoff gave himself and MLP supporters a free ride to trample on democratic safeguards.
Corruption allegations especially with regards to building permits issued under former Minister for public works Lorry Sant dominated the PN’s campaign in 1987.
Ironically Carmel Cacopardo, who this time round is contesting with AD, was at the forefront in that he had been working the Works Division as an architect shortly after graduating in 1982. Soon after a Cabinet reshuffle reinstated Lorry Sant as works minister, in October 1984 Godwin Drago, acting-director at the works division, informed Cacopardo he had been summarily dismissed from employment because of four articles he had penned in the papers. The next day, defying the authorities by signing in for work, he was physically evicted from the building when the police was called in. What ensued was a Constitutional case which found Cacopardo had suffered political discrimination in the termination of employment, which the court found had been instigated by the Works Ministry itself, and that the division had clearly not acted in the same manner with other employees who had published articles in other newspapers – namely Labour sympathisers.
Ironically Cacopardo joined AD after MEPA refused to extend his contract as investigator in the Audit Office despite the expressed wish of Auditor Joe Falzon. Despite widespread institutionalised corruption the PN only won the election by a sheer 4,000 votes.

New phenomena

Josie’s far right right party
This is the first election contested by a far-right party addressing a new social issue which cropped up after the 2003 election. Although the far right was absent in past elections, its leader was a protagonist in every election between 1966 and 1971.
Ever since contesting the 1966 election, Muscat’s oratorical skills and populism boosted the PN’s fortunes in the MLP’s southern strongholds. In 1981, Muscat won the PN 5,327 first count votes – 2,116 from the second district and 3,211 from the third district. This represented an increase of 888 votes from his tally in 1976.
Twenty-six years before rallying the Maltese far right behind the Azzjoni Nazzjonali banner, Josie Muscat led another rightist grouping which promised “total struggle against the reds” with the declared aim of setting up a “new order purged of all traces of socialism.”
The Front Freedom Fighters called for active resistance against Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s government, whose legitimacy was tarnished after holding on to power despite polling a minority of votes in the 1981 election. The FFF appealed to Malta’s Catholic identity.
While PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami preached non-violent resistance modeled on the teachings of  Indian independence leader Mahatma Ghandi, the persons who ganged around Josie Muscat promised to fight fire with fire. The FFF’s pamphlet inflamed passions and glorified the use of force. Although the FFF never explicitly called for violence, the pamphlets are full of references to fighting, direct action and struggle. The FFF’s mouthpiece “Ir-Rieda” also praised right-wing icons like US Senator McCarthy, US President Ronald Reagan and Bavarian Christian Social Union leader Franz Josef Strauss.
This contrasted with the PN’s shift towards the political centre ground. “If we are ready to accept the principles of our adversaries why fight against them?” asked Josie Muscat on Ir-Rieda, the FFF’s pamphlet. Muscat summarised his political beliefs, arguing that: “We should propose a totally different road. We should show the people a new order where everyone earns as much money as he can and pays the least possible taxes, where enterprise and hard work are rewarded with money and the best jobs, and where the highest values are cultural and spiritual, not monetary.”
In July 1983 the PN decreed that the FFF was a movement “harbouring political beliefs contrary to the principles and interests of the PN” and that membership in the FFF was incompatible with that in the PN. Josie Muscat obeyed, and the FFF was disbanded.
Josie’s troubles with the PN establishment were far from over. He was censured by the party after meeting Mintoff in an attempt to find an resolution for the post-1981 constitutional quandary which gripped the country. Muscat himself admitted in an interview that he felt so close to a breakthrough with Mintoff, that he risked his party’s wrath by meeting the Prime Minister despite a party directive to stop any contacts with the Maltese premier.
In 1986, Muscat was the only MP to vote against the constitutional amendments which guaranteed majority rule and enacted the principle of neutrality in the Maltese constitution. After clashing with his own party on three fundamental issues, Muscat decided to call it a day, retreating into self-imposed exile from politics, during which he emerged as a health entrepreneur, dabbled as a plastic surgeon and raised funds for the Eden Foundation. Yet once again Muscat has emerged from the political wilderness with his uncanny mixture of Mintoffian discourse, anti-immigrant sentiments and right-wing economics.

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